The Russian artist El Lissitzky is best remembered for his striking Constructivist and Suprematist works in the early era of Soviet avant-garde propaganda. Books like The Story of the Two Squares, his design work for UNOVIS, and the posters and exhibitions for Soviet pavilions at international fairs in Europe and the United States continue to make a powerful impression on artists and graphic designers today. What is less well remembered are the many works of Yiddish literature lavishly illustrated by Lissitzky for the Jewish Kultur-Liga in the years immediately following the First World War. Part of the reason for this is that the Kultur-Liga was suppressed soon after the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War.
Lissitzky and others were forced to turn away from Jewish cultural legacies toward an art that emphasized class as the primary (if not sole) criteria for identity politics. Published in 1919, Lissitzky’s Chad Gadya appeared at a
crucial juncture in this transformation, and elements of both his later turn to the stark geometric forms of Suprematism as well as his earlier works in traditional illustration are both evident in this extraordinarily rare survival from a pivotal moment in the development of Russian and modernist aesthetics. Only 75 copies were printed, and many of those were destroyed during the suppression of Jewish and other ethnic identities in the early Soviet era. Beinecke’s copy, which fills out our extensive holdings of Lissitzky’s Yiddish and Constructivist works, is one of just three known copies for which the fragile dustjacket, itself a masterpiece of modernist design, has been preserved. Some examples of our other Lissitzky holdings can be found here, here, here, and here, to share only a few.
Had Gadya or “one little goat”, refers to a folk song possibly derived from a late German medieval source. By the late 15th century Had Gadya had been incorporated into the Passover seder, the ritual meal marking the beginning of the holiday. Traditionally sung in Hebrew and Aramaic, El Lissitsky chose Yiddish, the common vernacular of European Jews, to depict the playful narrative whereby a series of characters destroy each other: a cat eats the titular goat, a dog bites the cat, a stick beats the dog, a fire burns the stick, water extinguishes the fire, and on and on…
Learn more about our copy through Orbis Yale’s online library catalog and read the introduction to the 2004 facsimile edition published by The Getty.